Feb 11-18, Ho Chi Minh (Saigon) 40 km
Arriving in HCM on the 11th a bit after noon and leaving late in the evening on the 18th gave me a good week to get to know this city of 8.25 million. I guess when you look at the population and time the active verb should be “sample” rather than “get to know”. Still, compared to most tourist agendas I think I had a pretty good run at my visit here. My visit was also complicated by a couple of other personal factors. I had just gone through three weeks of getting up at 6:00, moving out of what was always a comfortable hotel followed by five or six hours of cycling followed by a search for another hotel before the heat of the day fried my onto by bike. In Saigon (I still use these two names interchangeably in my mind, as do many of the locals I think) the main attractions were not moving for a whole week and having a nice attractive place I could come back to when I felt the need of a cool place of tranquility. This latter factor was what led me to choose the Spring Hotel in district one, rather than heading for Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker mecca, that is likened to Khao San Rd in Bangkok.
In spite of myself I began to enjoy HCM. By choosing to give up my southward voyage on Thursday last week, rather than continuing on down to the Mekong Delta, I hit the tail end of the Tet celebrations in Saigon. Nguyen Hue is a double road, separated by a wide paved boulevard running from the Hotel d’ Ville about five blocks to the Saigon River. It runs through the heart of the high-end part of the city. The big international hotels (old and new) and fancy new office towers border Nguyen Hue. After a leisurely breakfast on Friday morning I was informed by my hotel people that I had to head towards Nguyen Hue, two blocks away. By the time I got there so had some 10s of thousands of people, mostly families with young children or young people; the girls dressed to kill in Ao Dai or modern equivalents.
Nguyen Hue and the streets leading into it had been closed to traffic and filled with flower displays of an incredible variety. I added a few photographs to the millions that would have been snapped during my time there. I don’t do selfies and didn’t ask anyone to capture me in front of any of the displays, but I am sure I got captured anyways. It was very difficult to make my way down this lovely corridor without interjecting myself into someone’s composition. I walked the length of Nguyen Hue slowly and along the Saigon River for a ways before making my way back to the boulevard to have a coffee and watch the people from a seated position.
While having coffee I was asked to make a lucky wish. You write your wish out and hang it on a tree with hundreds of others. I have been a good boy on this trip. Like a good Buddhist I have not killed anything as there have been no bugs of any sort. I have only cursed a few of the people who cut me off on the road and in general have been appreciative of the people and my fate. So I filled in my wish and I think I have a good chance. So if we shortly have “World Peace; No one in poverty or slavery; No child without family or love” my wish will have been granted.
I went back Friday evening to capture some of the night time lighting to find that it was so busy that I couldn’t really walk very much of it. By Saturday morning when I walked by again, vehicular traffic was flowing again and all of the flowers and displays were gone. As I said, I lucked into that one.
My strategy, to meet both a moderate tourist agenda and my personal need for an easy few days, was to visit or do one thing each day and to do them before noon so that I could retreat to the cool of a pleasant tea garden or my hotel.
The Reunification Palace was built in 1966 to replace the Norodom Palace that had been built in 1871 to house the French Governor of Indochina. The original palace had been largely destroyed in 1962 during an assassination attempt on then South Vietnam President Diem who had taken the palace as his residence. The current palace was the residence of President Thieu during the American period until 1975 when the regime collapsed. Thieu fled to Taiwan and the US airlifted out of Saigon as the north’s troops advanced upon the city and the south. The Reunification Palace is the most important symbol of the reunification of Vietnam after 1000 years of conflict. Mostly what I saw during my visit was a lot of 1970s style furniture and photos from the end of American War. The grounds are lovely and I sat in a tea garden for my iced coffee listening to traditional Vietnamese music instead of motorbikes.
I went to the Ho Chi Minh City Museum because it was built in the 1800s also to house the French Governor General. But this one still exists, old and musty but very French. It is also called the Gia Long Palace with some nice gardens and old cars. The museum it houses relates more to the city than to the country but still has its American War remnants.
French 19th century architecture around the city melds in with the big modern hotel and office towers. Many of the streets are wide boulevards, decorated for Tet. Walking the streets was my primary activity in part due to the shade from the tall buildings and trees. I could choose between streets with modern office activity or street level vendors. Things were not too hectic and sidewalks usually had enough space so that people could walk on them, even if you did have to watch for the odd motorbike avoiding a congested street.
I cycled to the train station, to find that I would have to send my bike back to Hanoi on a separate train which I did two days before I would leave in the hopes that it would be in Hanoi when I arrived. I also cycled to the Botanical Garden and it was a Zoo, literally and figuratively. The gardens are actually gardens, zoo and fair ground and on this Sunday teeming with families. Again photo taking is the hot activity followed by chasing young kids and by picnics. I spent some time there as I enjoy watching families having fun and my strangeness is a magnet to the very young, eliciting either tears or laughter depending I guess upon the child’s affinity for the unusual.
Saigon is quite expensive compared to life on the road but still reasonable for those who come here directly from abroad. I chose my places to eat and drink coffee or beer carefully. In many ways I prefer life along the road where choice is limited and the people and prices have not become habituated to tourists. It is not that I am cheap (or maybe it is), but it bothers me to feel “taken” because I am a foreigner. I think that a two-tier price system, even if it is informal, creates an added separation between me and the people I am trying to get to know and makes the connection that much more difficult. At any rate, with thousands of places to try I am finally finding a bit of my way around. And I have had some great food. The variation is incredible.
I found my way to the Ben Than Market. At one time it would have been the primary food market in town and there is still some food but it has become hundreds if stalls selling tourist kitsch. Still it is fun chattering with the very outgoing vendors as they try to guess what you might bite upon.
I also found my way into the backpacker area where I found that you could rent a motor bike for $5-6 a day but only for use in the city. Backpackers who want to take one on a trek about the country usually pay $3-500 for a used one and then try to sell it again when they finish their travels. I have not talked to anyone who plans on or has ventured out of Vietnam with their motor bikes. New motor bikes cost $1-3000. I am not sure about insurance or licensing costs or processes.
As much as the heat get me (35-40) there are aspects of the tropical environment that really appeals to me. In particular I enjoy the sounds of cicadas and the smell of plumeria (fangiapani). The former have not appeared for me, but I am at the tail-end of the plumeria blossoming period here. Perhaps they will still be in season when I get back to Hanoi which is quite a bit farther north. The primary flower colour for Tet is yellow; I have been told it is red or pink in the north. One of the striking plants that I have been experiencing is a tree with yellow blossoms usually planted in a big bonsai type pot. I am told it is an Apricot Tree. Apparently the blossoms are controlled by plucking the leaves off at a specific time that then stimulates the blossoms in time for Tet. As Tet is now over, many of these trees are now losing their blossoms and I see the pots being carted off somewhere where the process will begin again for next year.
I decided not to take a one day tour into the Mekong Delta because of my distaste for bus type tours I do have to take them, as I did in Hue and will likely do in the north, but the independence of just street walking here seemed to satisfy me.
And so I am off for a two night train ride to Hanoi.